By San Joaquin valley standards, Tom Willey’s farm is so puny that I sped past it without noticing. My mind had been swept away by the region’s agoraphobia-inducing sense of infinite vastness. Ruler-straight byways traverse miles of almond trees planted on precise geometric grids like perfectly drilled soldiers. Those give way to tracts of grape vines trellised in parallel rows stretching to the horizon, followed by green oceans of lettuce, onions, tomatoes, and alfalfa running to the base of distant blue-gray mountains.
There is a gritty majesty to San Joaquin, the southern half of California’s Central Valley. Route 99, the freeway that bisects it, thunders with the traffic of tractor-trailers that haul equipment in and agricultural products out 24/7. The geography beside the highway is marked by grain elevators and storage silos that soar like medieval turrets. Enormous piles of almond hulls (sold as cattle feed) rise in conical mounds as tall as five-story buildings. I passed warehouse after warehouse, each big enough to be an airplane hangar. Farm equipment dealerships broke up monotonous gray and whites with the yellow, green, orange, and scarlet hues of tractors, plows, combines, dump trucks, bulldozers, and Rube Goldberg contraptions whose purpose I could only guess, all seemingly designed to be operated by a race of giants.
On the surface, the San Joaquin Valley gives no hints that it is home to some of the most innovative food producers in the country. On a seventy-five-acre “patch,” as Willey aptly calls it, T & D Willey Farms grows fifty different varieties of produce: “everything from artichokes to zucchinis.” (More typically, his nearest neighbor raises a single variety of wine grape on 750 acres.) “Conventional farming approaches are just too brain-dead for me,” he said, in the cluttered bungalow that serves as his head office. “As an organic farmer, you have to be out ahead of the game. You have to be studying insect ecology and soil microbiology. It’s fascinating, challenging, and intellectually stimulating.”